Robben Island is set to become the site of a green energy pilot project, aimed at exploring the potential of distributed models of hybrid renewable and alternative energy technologies to generate more power for South Africa at a lower cost than traditional coal-fired generators.
The Greening Robben Island project aims to replace the island’s two diesel-guzzling generators with a hybrid of renewable technologies – including wind and solar power, biomass energy and a mini hydro system – and to implement efficient energy management, to demonstrate that South Africa can reduce its dependence on fossils fuels.
The project falls under the Working for Energy programme, an initiative of the South African National Energy Research Institute (SANERI) and Department of Energy (DoE), tasked with providing energy from renewable sources, as well as energy management and demand side management (DSM) frameworks.
Derek Batte, a Senior Manager at SANERI says renewable energy has enormous potential as a source for the future. The challenge, he says, is to drive the commercialisation of renewable energy technologies and distributed models of energy generation, in a marketplace that is accustomed to the Leviathan that is the Eskom power grid.
The recently developed, Working for Energy programme is exploring ways of generating energy from sources such as biomass and charcoal from invasive alien plants, bush encroachment and grasses; biofuels; mini-grid hybrid and smart grid systems; and micro hydro systems.
“Currently, renewable resources such as solar and wind power are seen as having the potential to supplement coal-fired generation, but not to provide reliable baseload electricity as cheaply as coal,” he says.
But SANERI has developed economic models showing that renewable energy hybrids could generate three times more energy than a conventional new generation fossil station and five times the jobs at one third of the cost over the next 20 years if renewables are exploited to the correct potential.
Batte envisions a future where farms run on power generated by their own agricultural waste, alien vegetation is converted to biomass fuel and villages not on the electricity grid become self-sufficient “islands” of energy through a blend of renewable technologies.
“Our goal is to take all this research from concept through demonstration and incubation to commercialisation, by means of at least 10 successful demonstration projects – starting with the Robben Island Greening Project,” he says.
Batte says distributed power technologies are proven, but South Africa does not yet have the manufacturing capability. Barriers to entry include the fact that the REFIT tariff applies only to technologies that can produce more than 1 megawatt of power continuously, whereas hybrid systems don’t work off one massive grid, but hundreds of micro plants.
The Robben Island test bed will be up and running by April next year and will include an online virtual reality model of the island, so that interested parties will be able to follow the project in real time by clicking on the website links.
“We can no longer afford to focus on just one source of energy,” says Batte. “Government is calling for greater diversification of energy sources to boost energy security. Renewable energy technologies and energy management initiatives have the potential to ensure a secure energy future for South Africa, as well as stimulating job creation and contributing to local economic development, skills transfer and capacity development.”